The GT3 was Porsche’s first crack at a spicy, RS-style version of the 996. We drive both Mark 1 and Mark 2 versions – and, what-d’ya-know, they’re both Speed Yellow! How cool is that for two hot numbers?
So sleek, so purposeful; no other Porsche has quite the same shark-like demeanour as the 996 GT3. With good reason, too. The company’s radical evolution from air-cooled, hand-crafted cars to robotised production-line water-cooled models from 1996 demanded a flagship, something to lead the charge, a competition-orientated car along the lines of the ’73 2.7 RS and its 964 and 993 RS successors. Launched in May 1999, the 996 GT3did the business straight away, combining a higher performance, normally-aspirated engine with sports-tuned, track-focussed suspension to produce a highly-strung thoroughbred. Like RSs from previous generations, the GT3 demands to be put through its paces every time it’s fired up and,as we’ll find out, it never disappoints.
Named after the FIA’s GT3 endurance racing class, it was immediately pressed into service for the showcase Carrera Cup and Porsche Supercup race series, as well as being the weapon of choice for contenders in stand-out events like the Nürburgring 24-Hours, and the N-GT class of the FIA GT Championship from 2000 which it cleaned up in.In its first-ever race, Manthey Racing’s GT3 won the GT class at the 1999 Le Mans 24-Hours in the hands of Uwe Alzen/Patrick Huisman/Luca Riccitelli. Soon enough, in-house super-tester Walter Röhrl lapped the daunting Nürburgring Nordschleifein 7m 56s, in other words, sub-8m, a statistic immediately seized upon by Porsche PRs, since it was the first production car ever to do so. It looked the part too: subtle chin spoiler and narrow airdam, aerodynamically configured and flared sills, and fixed double-decker ‘swan neck’ rear wing.
The GT3 was the progeny of Andreas Preuninger, Manager of Porsche High Performance Cars and head of Porsche’s GTseries production department. Known for his purist approach to driving, Preuninger designed a set-up calculated to inspire maximum driver involvement, and that excluded the Tiptronic and later PDK gearboxes. Unveiled at the 1999 Geneva Show and released in May that year, the 996 GT3 was based upon the recently introduced Carrera 4 bodyshell, modified to accommodate the GT3’s dry-sump oil tank, different engine mounts, and larger fuel tank. Relying on engine upgrades rather than forced induction to achieve higher performance, the GT3 body had no need of Turbo- or GT2-style vents, an absence that complements its overall sleekness.Now for the science bit. While standard 996 Carreras were powered by the 3.4-litre flat-six at the time, the GT3 was equipped with a new 3.6-litre unit. Regarded as bullet-proof, the 3.6 “Metzger” engine was built up using the 964 crankcase, allied to a pair of water-cooled cylinder banks and camshafts in anarrangement conceptually similar to the 959 supercar and 956/962 and GT1 racing models.Re-engineered in normally-aspirated format for greater production volume and wider homologation potential, with higher 11.7:1 compression ratio, Vario Camtiming adjustment and four-valves per cylinder, its plasma-nitrided crankshaft and titanium conrods enabled it to rev significantly higher than the standard engine. The six-speed transmission and dual-mass flywheel with 40-percent LSD was derived from the 993 GT2, and at launch, the 360bhp @ 7200rpm GT3 was the most powerful normally-aspirated 911 ever to go on sale. The 0-60mph sprint took 4.7 seconds, while top speed was 187mph.
It had the handling to match as well. The suspension was lowered by 30mm and consisted of adjustable dampers, stiffer springs and adjustable anti-roll bars, with cross-drilled and ventilated 330mm disc brakes with four-pot calipers and ABS 5.3. Wider track was obtained by means of 5mm spacers, set off by lightweight ten-spoke 18-in wheels, 8in front, 10in rear, shod with 225/40 x 18 and 285/30 ZR 18 tyres. Designer Preuninger is on record as being committed to providing maximum ‘feel’ with the GT3, on the premise that a fast car lacking sensory appreciationis worthless. To provide greater scope for achieving this sensational overload, roadgoing models come in two trim levels: Comfort or Clubsport, the latter featuring racing seats and rear roll cage at no extra charge. Club Sport versions also employ a single-mass flywheel, allowing the revs to rise and fall more rapidly. The Comfort features leather-upholstered bucket seats, but no rear seats or centre console. In both cases the spacesaver spare is replaced by a puncture repair kit and inflator – all very well if you detect your tyre deflating but useless if it’s shredded by the time you come to a standstill.The Mk 1 was the last Porsche to have a throttle cable, and apart from ABS it had no other driver aids. It was also the last road-going Porsche to be built on the motorsport production line, and though it’s a heavier car than the standard 996 Carrera, the Mk 2 is heavier still. The Mk 1 had a reputation for worn synchro rings, but a second batch of cars incorporated steel synchro rings, which the Mk 2 received as a matter of course.
In 2004 the Mk 2 appeared on the scene, along with the GT3 RS.There’s a school of thought that believes the GT3 was softened to produce more of a contrast with the hard-edged GT3 RS version introduced at the same time, and if nothing else, the presence of cup holders perhaps hints at such a revised status. The Mk 2 (you’ll also see them referred to as Gen 1 and Gen 2 now)was the first GT3 to be available in the USA, traditionally legislatively averse to tuned versions. Externally the Mk 2 displays several stylistic changes too, some subtle, some not so subtle. Less exaggerated, kind of like Art Deco’s rigidity against Art Nouveau’s floridity. That’s to say that, visually it was toned down. The headlights were modified to differentiate it from the Boxster, and to expand the fried egg simile, the Mk 2’s eggs occupied less of the frying pan. The front and rear aprons are different too, earning the Mk 2 some maturity in the process, with slightly different geometry and slope angles to the inlets and air ducts – which should ideally have mesh behind them to stop ingress of garbage.The 18in ten-spoke wheels were simplified, side skirts massaged to provide more aero, and the rear wing configured as a platform on a pair of struts instead of the Mk 1’s elegant swan-neck biplane. More significantly, power rose to 381bhp with torque up to 284lb/ft, most of which was available from 2000rpm, and it was shorter geared in fifth and sixth.Suspension was further lowered and firmed, brakes were beefed up with six-pot calipers up front, with Porsche’s ceramic composite brake system optional – for a trifling £5,356 extra. Still, when track-testing a GT3 with ceramic brakes, Auto car magazine’s test team discovered that, ‘not even several committed laps of the Nürburgring could induce any fade.’Sticky tyres aided traction too: bespoke semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport N1 tyres were developed specifically for the GT3. It was, however, 30kg heavier than the Mk 1.
At launch, the GT3 was well received. ‘A joy to use,’ said Autocar, ‘but no quicker than the standard 911.’ Testing the car at Millbrook proving ground, they reckoned this was due to the fact that the GT3 weighed 30kg more than the regular 996 Carrera, and, ‘it wasn’t as quick as we’d hoped.’ Nevertheless, there were few other gripes: braking, they reported, ‘is chest-crushing from any speed.’ At low speeds and in town it was not an illuminating experience, though there were compensations: ‘For an engine that offers 100bhp per litre, it has an unnatural dose of deportment at low speeds.’ And handling too: ‘the payback is stunning body control on any given road, just grip and composure.’ Turn-in was found to be much sharper than the standard model, ‘more on its toes with front-end bite.’
When the Mk 2 GT3 became available,Autocar magazine was on the case again: ‘the latest GT3 is in a different league from its ancestor when it comes to straight-line go,’ they claimed, ‘…so it qualifies as a genuine supercar.’ More compliant than its predecessor, they ventured. ‘Rock hard and very noisy over anything other than billiard-table smooth surfaces. But when the GT3’s handling moment arrives it is a truly devastating thing to experience.’Something to aim for, then.
But despite the pundits’ assertive views expressed back in the day, there’s still an underlying element of connoisseurship amongst 996 GT3 owners and aspirants, manifest in niggling light-hearted rivalry, traffic-light jousting, and conflicting views on the relative values of earlier and later models, as Mk 1 owners contend their cars are better than Mk 2s, and vice versa. And it goes without saying that the more evolved Mk2 version is an improved car. Yet, on paper at least, the two cars seem so alike that we are in splitting hair territory. There’s much to commend about the first series of any car in terms of purity of concept and specification, and however rationally applied, improvements don’t necessarily bring a more desirable result.So what are the disputed points? Some claim Mk 1s are slightly more involving to drive, others cite the Mk 2’s ability to rev more freely, produce more torque, sound better, with a more positive feel to the gearshift. We’ll discover the truth for ourselves in a minute.
I’m working with photographer Amy Shore, fresh from snapping Goodwood’s 73rdMembers’ Meeting and on her first gig for 911&PW, and we’ve come to Cambridge Motor Company’s garage beside the A10 at Shepreth, just south of Cambridge. The showroom is fronted by a pair of 996 GT3 RSs and a 964 RS; it’s high-end classics territory, and we squeeze past a CAV GT40, Ferrari 430 and an Aston Martin DB9. Proprietor Jonny Royle greets us and, soon enough, Martin Pearce rocks up in a Viper green 997 GT3RS. Not trying to outdo us, just that it’s typical of MCP Motorsport’s fare up at Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast. The yellow Mk 1 GT3 also gracing the showroom is Martin’s car, displayed at Cambridge on a symbiotic basis: they have the viewing platform, he supplies some of the goodies. He’s soon followed by Jonathan Sturgess in the second of our feature cars, the Mk 2 996 GT3.
It’s Martin who is selling the Mk 1,having recently driven the car back from Sicily, where he bought it from a member of the, er, well-known Gambino family. My head swims with images of Al Pacino in The Godfather. ‘He told me there were several other people after it – the oldest trick in the book – and he wanted all the money up front,’ laughs Martin. ‘The delivery driver bringing it to my hotel literally stopped the car in the middle of the road and wouldn’t hand it over till I coughed up another 1,000 euros for his fee!’The GT3 has had two wealthy owners since 1999 and been stored for a long time, hence less than 30,000 miles on the clock (though the speedo is in kph). It’s been repainted, though you wouldn’t guess; it just looks like an immaculate Mk 1. Martin checked it out with a friend at Porsche Palermo and it ticked all the boxes so he did the deal. It has black leather sport seats with yellow belts, plus usuals like climate control, carbon pack, CDR 22 Radio, stainless-steel kick-plates embossed with the GT3 logo, and 18in GT3 alloy wheels. Its Porsche service history includes the most recent service carried out on March 18, along with a new MOT, when a brand new set of Pirelli PZERO Tyres was fitted.It’s priced at £69,750 and, as I write, it appears to be the only Mk 1 GT3 for sale in Great Britain at the moment. ‘They’ve all been swallowed up,’ says Jonny Royle; ‘people are just sitting on them waiting to see what happens to the marketplace.’It’s also a matter of logical market progression; as air-cooled RSs disappear over the fiscal horizon, the GT3 is obviously the next best thing – manifest in its 9th place ranking in our Silver Jubilee poll in last month’s edition: suddenly it seems everybody is taking notice. One who committed long ago is our lone wolf snapper Antony Fraser, whose Mk 1 GT3 frequently graces the project cars pages, and didn’t he do well?
Today’s Mk 2 version belongs to Jonathan Sturgess, who owns the Autostore car storage facility in a nearby village, and he’s affiliated to the Cambridge Motor Company in so far as it’s Autostore’s sales outlet as well. The yellow Mk 2 is Jonathan’s pride and joy, bought in Scotland from a terminally ill owner grateful to find a buyer keen enough to travel to the Highlands to view it before he passed away. ‘Apparently I was the only punter prepared to make the journey to his remote location on the off-chance it would be worth buying, and it turned out to be a cracker,’ muses Jonathan. He’s right about that. He also runs a silver 996 Turbo as daily driver, so the shout-out GT3 is strictly for high-days-and-holidays only.
Using the Silver Bullet 986 Boxster S as camera car, we ease the yellow twosome onto the web of country lanes that bisect the arable prairies hereabouts, a nice mixture of long straights, shallow curves and acute field boundary corners. Pearcey drives, Amy snaps, and Jonathan and I handle the yellow perils. It’s been sunny and dry for days so the surfaces are ideal, and where there’s a clear view I straightline the bends for sustained velocity potential.
I’m driving the left-hooker Mk 1 first, and it feels very comfortable being back in what’s become for me, the ‘correct’ driving position. Its purposeful stance suggests that a GT3 might be a daunting prospect, but this one doesn’t overawe, it’s not a hostile, unfriendly car. At a standstill there’s a much looser, rattley sound about the exhaust and transmission, quite different to a normal 996’s flat-six. The growl it emits from 3,500rpm upwards becomes a roar at 5,000rpm. Steering is sharp, nicely weighted so there’s some resistance to it, but it’s effortless as well. I’m absolutely in touch with the road; the front end is feeling every nuance of the camber, nosing around like a hunting hound, though at speed on the straight ahead it does jink and weave a little. On the other hand, it also rides and absorbs bumps like railway level crossings very well. This chassis is supremely alive, communicative, and out for a game; if you’re up for a thrill, it’s right there with you.
And then we swap over. I’m not expecting any major differences in the driving experience, in spite of Autocar’s earlier verdicts, but it turns out there is a big surprise in store. In the Mk 2, the first thing I’m aware of is how much firmer it feels compared with the Mk 1; it’s not that the Mk 1 is in any way loose, just that the Mk 2 is tauter. It’s more planted, less inclined to dance around. In hard cornering the Mk 2 is much better controlled, less wilful.The smoothness and awesomely fast acceleration are impressive. I think it’s a significantly more compliant car than the Mk 1, though Martin proposes getting his charge’s suspension reviewed by Centre Gravity. In fact, a number of Mk 1s have Mk 2 calipers fitted retrospectively, and though the 381bhp Mk 2 has another 21bhp, mild engine work would enable a Mk 1 to match that.
The gearshift of the Mk 1 feels notchy, a bit ‘clink, clunk’, though never recalcitrant, while the Mk 2 is a bit slicker. This Mk 2’s actually a Comfort that’s had most of the Club Sport kit retrospectively bestowed on it, so I’m aware of the roll cage in the back and the classy racing bucket seats and Schroth harnesses, and I wonder if it feels a tauter chassis because of the rollcage adding structural rigidity. Visually, I prefer the quirkier aesthetics of the Mk 1, which make it a bit more purposeful, other-worldly even, while the Mk 2 looks standardised by comparison. Some might perceive that the Mk 2 has a cleaner cut look to it. As for driving them, the Mk 2 will be the easier of the two to live with; it’s like a top-notch Olympic sprinter compared with agutsy amateur club-class athlete.
And the verdict? As for Autocar’s scribes, they reckoned the Mk 2 GT3 ‘is one of, if not the most, exciting handlers this magazine has ever tested.’ Well, put it there, boys; I couldn’t agree more. It’s the one I’d have, money no object, at least in water-cooled terms. And though it would be the Mk2, I’d piss about with the detailing so at least it had that elegant Mk 1 swan-neck wing.
My journey from Cambridgeshire back to my Somerset billet provides a reality check. As a cross-country missile, Mr T’s Boxster S is so effective that I don’t reckon either GT3 would have done it any quicker. Plus I had the top down all the way. But much as I like the Boxster imagery, it’s the GT3 that does it for me, and to coin that arch rebel yeller Billy Idol, I want ‘more, more, more!’ More GT3. It does grow on you.